3-18-2014 Albuquerque to Chaco Canyon and on to Farmington

Current (March 23): boondocking near Virgin, UT  Clear, Breezy, and 73 degrees F at 7PM

Chaco Canyon_053We have laughed at ourselves a bit, wondering why we felt so compelled to barrel west from Florida.  This morning, looking at our calendar and the map, it was obvious that we could have lingered a bit more.  Now we will do the lingering, now that we are back West, and close enough to home that we can get there easily. 

Chaco Canyon_001Although our next major stop will be Page, Arizona, around 444 miles, there is no need to speed our way west.  Instead we will travel the side roads, avoiding the interstate once again.  This morning dawned a bit less windy than the day before, but we were still happy to stay away from the high speeds required on the interstate and ambled north from our camp at Kirtland AFB toward Highway 550 and Farmington.

Not far from Albuquerque is the small roadside town of Bernalillo, lying low along the Rio Grande.  Once an historic route, marking the pathway of Coronado as he searched for the “cities of gold”, I-25 now bypasses the community at breakneck pace.  On another trip perhaps, it might have been fun to explore a bit, with a charming small town atmosphere that seemed to be strong and healthy. We did see a large sign for the Visitor Center at a local café that was encouraging. It was early morning, and we had barely started, so stopping just wasn’t in the cards this time.

Chaco Canyon_080Not long ago I read a great book, “House of Rain, Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest”, by Craig Childs.  Somehow in all my reading about the southwest and its culture, I had missed this author. Since then I have sucked up as many of his titles as I can fit on the Kindle, he is a great writer, especially for long winter nights when I am tucked away at home dreaming of canyon travels. This book is Craig’s own well informed hypothesis about what may have happened to the Anasazi Cultures, and Chaco Culture specifically. I read the book last year, wondering then why I had never managed to get to Chaco, in spite of traveling extensively in other parts of the Colorado Plateau and hunting down ancient kivas, pictographs, petroglyphs,and granaries in untold canyons.

Once again, the spontaneous choice of route led us to another treasure.  Looking on the map, I saw with astonishment that Chaco Culture National Historic Park was just a short jaunt from the highway.  Well, I suppose 21 miles each way, with several of those miles being dirt road isn’t exactly short, but is definitely short when compared to the distance from home and the fact that we might never travel this way again.

Chaco Canyon_039There is a small campground at Chaco Culture NHP, but the last four miles of the road are especially rough, and there was no way we would take the MoHo there.  We did see a few small van type campers, and one adventurous owner of a 24 foot View tipping and bouncing and bumping along on the way back out.  Nah…we were content to drive in with the Tracker and enjoy the park for a day trip. 

Of course, after being there, I realized that a day trip is only one way to experience Chaco, and a much better experience, a deeper immersion into the archaeological wonder that is there would take days or weeks.  I would love to camp there in a tent and experience the night sky, wander where the ancients wandered, and try to feel the place more deeply than I could in a single afternoon.

map to chacoChaco Canyon_014We turned from Highway 550 at the well signed marker for the park, traveled 6 miles on paved road before finding a large level gravel parking area where we felt it would be safe to leave the MoHo.  Since the park is surrounded by the Navajo reservation, there is no camping anywhere off the highway.  When you reach the parking lot area, turn right, (west), and the road is paved for another 4 miles before continuing west with  8.5 miles of reasonably smooth dirt (not washboard gravel) road.  The last 4 miles are not easy.  Even in the baby car the road was rough, going through a couple of washes that would be impassable if there had been rain.

Chaco Canyon_027Once at the park boundary, however, the road is paved, with a 9 mile loop road that meanders past several of the ruins.  As usual, we stopped at the visitor center, checked out the movie, the displays, and the maps and embarked on the loop road. I learned at the Visitor Center, that Chaco Culture is one of only 21 World Heritage Sites designated by UNESCO in the United States.  It is interesting to go to the World Heritage Site website and read about how and why places are chosen.  Of the 21 sites in the United States, 8 are cultural sites and 13 are natural sites, with only one natural site, The Everglades, listed as a World Heritage Site in danger.

Chaco Canyon_055There are Anasazi ruins throughout the southwest, I have visited many, but nothing quite prepared me for the power and immensity of Chaco Canyon.  From the mid 800’s to the 1100’s, Chaco was the center of trade and commerce that extended throughout the southwest.  The artifacts excavated at Chaco in the early part of this century are still being deciphered, but include shells from the Pacific, great macaw feather capes from Mexico, gorgeous black on white pottery, and great stores of turquoise.Chaco Canyon_057

What is left today are the remains of several huge Great Houses, some with as many as 600 rooms, up to three stories high, exhibiting magnificent architectural detail and construction.  In addition, the ruins suggest a deep understanding of astronomy.  Over 400 miles of prehistoric roadway that connect the Great Houses to outlying communities are known.  It was Craig Child’s story of his journey along one of these ancient roads the I most enjoyed.

Chaco Canyon_063As with archeology in all places, the theories are simply educated guesses as to the reasons that Chaco bloomed, how it was used, why it was left behind.  The Hopi, the Pueblo Culture, the Navajo all claim Chaco is part of their ancestry, and their stories handed down through the centuries include stories of what Chaco was for their people.

Walking through the intricate maze of rooms, and standing at the edge of the Great Kiva’s, it was easy to imagine being in Chaco at the height of its glory.  Some suggest that very few people actually lived in the Great Houses, and that they were used for temporary housing for people from many cultures gathering for ceremony and trade.

Time seemed to stop as we walked the trails, read the signs, looked for petroglyphs on the canyon walls.  Our visit to Bandelier the previous day had been only a tiny taste of what Chaco was.  I had skipped Chaco in the past, thinking, oh..the rock isn’t red there, the canyons look boring, that part of New Mexico is dull…and all sorts of other reasons for not going out of my way to find Chaco Canyon.

One of the most delightful aspects of visiting Chaco, was the Pueblo Bonito trail, where we were able to wander through the rooms and corridors, amazed at the intricacy of the masonry walls and their incredible beauty after 1,000 years.

As evening approached, and we finally forced ourselves to leave, both of us were so happy that we hadn’t let that dirt road warning keep us from coming to this magical place.

Chaco Canyon_052Initially I called several campgrounds in the vicinity of Farmington, our destination for the night, including one in the town of Bloomfield, one in Aztec, and Mom and Pop’s RV in Farmington.  It was a Tuesday, it was windy, and yet it seems that at least one of those campgrounds would answer the phone or return my message.  By the time we got to Farmington, it was getting close to dark, and I still had no word as to availability, so we looked at each other and said, “Is there a WalMart in Farmington?”

Chaco Canyon_078Sure enough with a look at AllStays.com, we found an “ask to park” Walmart symbol and it was right on our route.  Before long we were settled in among a few other RV’s and several big rigs taking a break for a night’s rest at the back of the parking lot.  Happy for a place to be, we even put out the slide without any problems and settled in just in time for nightfall.

These are the original logs, preserved in the dry desert air for more than a millennium.

Not long after we were settled in, I got a message from Pop, from Mom and Pop’s RV campground in Farmington, saying he had a pull through spot waiting for us and that they had been out to dinner.  I called him back and he was extremely nice, even after I told him I wouldn’t need the space and was parked at WalMart.  His parting words were, “That is great, just so you are safe and not having to drive when you are worn out.” Pretty nice RV park owner, I would say, and if I am through Farmington again, I’ll definitely check his place out.

We laughed about how good it felt to simply park and sleep, how quiet and safe it seemed, how the noise from the idling big rigs seemed to be low enough to not trouble us.  The low temperature for the night was to be between 15 and 20 degrees, but that never actually materialized, and we barely dropped below freezing.

I slept like a rock, falling asleep with images and dreams of what Chaco must have been like 1,000 years ago.


Tucumcari Tonight

Current Location: Kirtland AFB FamCamp Albuquerque, NM clear full moon tonight and 32 degrees F before tomorrow’s high of 70F

As we drove the last miles through Texas, ever watchful of the stormy skies, it was with a bit of relief that we felt the landscape begin the gentle rise into New Mexico.  The predicted winds were pushing us from behind, not unmanageable or difficult and when we reached the New Mexico visitor center at the state line, the skies were deep blue.Tucumcari visit-019

While Mo walked Abby in the dusty brown grass, I gathered an armload of maps and brochures about visiting New Mexico.  I had picked Tucumcari as a spot on the map that happened to be in the right location with a Passport America park, with no clue of its cultural attractions.  What a surprise to read all the glossy brochures and find out that we had a lot to see and do in Tucumcari.  I was especially excited to realize that we were on a well preserved stretch of Highway 66, known by some as the “Mother Road.”

Tucumcari visit-015Tucumcari visit-017Tucumcari visit-014We read about the Route 66 Photo Museum, the famous murals of Tucumcari, the old time diners and motel fronts, lit up with neon after dark.  Exiting the interstate east of town, we followed the empty dusty route of the old highway.  I reminisced about my own connections to Highway 66 as a kid in the San Gabriel Valley.  Huntington Drive was just a mile or so from where I lived, Route 66, and as a ten year old I would look down that highway and daydream about how far I could travel on that road.

Tucumcari visit-021Route 66 was established in 1926,and for the next 50 years became part of the American dream of automobile travel. The lore of the Mother Road is buried deep in the psyche of every motorcyclist that I know, along with Highway 49 and Highway 1 in California and the road to Sturgis in South Dakota. If you are a biker, I’ll bet you know about Tucumcari.Tucumcari visit-064

The reality of the town was a bit of a shock after the glossy descriptions in the brochures.  Somehow I was imagining a Disneyesque version of the old diners, with black and white checkered floors and red plastic chairs.  I especially looked forward to a real milkshake.  Instead, every single diner was closed.  Not one place in town was open for a meal, much less a real milkshake.  The streets were very nearly empty.  The old motels were mostly empty.Tucumcari visit-056

Our campground was a bit dicey, at least at first it seemed so.  Our biker dude manager showed us to the dusty site, and made sure that we had the phone number to call security if we needed it. The small office was so thick with cigarette smoke that I could barely stand to be in there for the few minutes it took to verify our reservation.  Cash only, and no receipt.  For a flat $20 we were extremely happy to have a place to settle in for the evening, and we even had working television!Tucumcari visit-010

Once settled, with the winds and dust rising dramatically, we followed the Mural Map to find some of the most amazing and artistic murals I have ever seen.  Most of them were painted by Doug and Sharon Quarles, two artists who were once part of the city and who left in 2009.  The murals were fantastic, but the town was incredibly sad.

Tucumcari visit-039As we drove around finding the murals, I kept feeling as though I had fallen into a Doomsday movie where the world has ended and no one is left.  Tumbleweeds in the old movie theater entrance and boarded up windows everywhere we turned were haunting.  We drove street after street, with row after row of dilapidated houses, not a sign of a well kept neighborhood anywhere.Tucumcari visit-061

It was the emptiness of the streets that was so haunting.  The old depot building had been remodeled, and was listed as a joint project of the city of Tucumcari and the Youth Conservation Corps, but we couldn’t find out anything about its history.

Tucumcari visit-045Nothing, and I mean not a thing was open.  The Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center was closed, the History Museum was closed, the Depot was closed, and as I said, the few small diners and all three of the ice cream shops were closed.  Remember, this was on a sunny Saturday afternoon! 

Tucumcari visit-042Tucumcari visit-044A friend of mine mentioned on Facebook how much she loved Tucumcari, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a different place in the summertime and all the closures were simply seasonal. 

Tucumcari visit-047Once back home, with the winds howling at over 45 miles per hour and the wild dust of the high prairies swirling around and making visibility very low, we decided that driving back down Main Street after dark to see the neon wasn’t in the cards.  Maybe Tucumcari on a hot summer night when riding a motorcycle is a whole different experience.  I probably won’t ever find out.Tucumcari visit-080

In spite of the winds, we slept well, and woke to gorgeous sunny skies and temperatures in the low 30’s, no frost.  We took our time leaving, and wound our way out of town on the old Route 66 road that parallels the interstate for most of the way.  The road was a bit rough, and at one point it passed under the freeway through a narrow passage so filled with tumbleweeds that we had to get out and rake them out of the way. Historic Route 55 needs a bit of care

A few miles west of Tucumcari we drove through the old ghost towns of Montoya, Newkirk, and Cuervo. As I walked the old streets of these towns I kept wondering if I was seeing a vision of what our civilization was going to look like someday.  Would all our towns and cities turn to this?  These small communities once had thriving businesses, motels and as stations and restaurants, all supported by the travelers on the highway. 

Tucumcari visit-099Highway 66 for decades served thousands of people migrating west during the Dust Bowl days of the 30’s, and later families traveling by car on long vacations interspersed with motel stays and picnics.  Interstate 40 changed everything.  Travelers went farther and faster, and the new highway bypassed many of the small towns along the way.  What is left are Love’s and Pilot’s and Flying J’s and generic restaurants with cardboard food. A way of life is gone.Tucumcari visit-100

After wandering the old ghost towns a bit, we entered the modern world once again on I-40 west.  The road was smooth, the truck traffic heavy, the pace at 70mph plus.  Climbing inexorably toward the Rockies the elevation rose and suddenly we were blinded by something white and fluffy along the road.Tucumcari visit-117

Have we been in the South that long?  Mo at first thought there had been some kind of debris blown around and couldn’t figure it out.  Oh.  snow.  It was snow.  I had seen the snow on the radar last night and as we were buffeted about by the winds, I had been happy to be far away from the snow.  I guess were weren’t as far away as I thought.  This afternoon the temperature was 39 degrees in the brilliant sunshine.Tucumcari visit-120

Once down the hill into the broad valley of Albuquerque, the temperatures rose to the mid-60’s again, and the snow was a light dusting on the distant mountains.  We settled into Kirtland AFB Family Camp without any difficulty, even though the camp office is closed until Monday morning.  Instructions on the office door were clear and found a great site in the newer part of the camp with full hookups.Tucumcari visit-124

We will stay here for a couple of days, doing some exploring north of town, and visiting with friends before continuing west.  Sunny skies, warm days and cold nights, no rain and no snow are on the radar for the time being, so we are  in luck.